THE GOD WHO DISAPPEARS FROM US (Part 1)
By Jacob Loh
" ...and he disappeared from their sight" (Luke 24:31)
In my early years growing up in Petaling Jaya, I watched action-packed movies at the Ruby cinema in SEA Park. I love how the hero in a sword-fighting movie would suddenly disappear from a fighting scene only to return later to fight a final battle.
In the Emmaus story, when they finally arrived into the village, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. And then, poof, he disappeared during dinner. And then some time later he reappeared in to the larger group of disciples gathered in Jerusalem (see 24:36- 40). But if the disciples assumed that the risen Christ would be with them forever, it was not so. In front of their eyes, he made his final physical disappearance as he ascended into heaven (see vv50-53). Are we seeing a kind of dramatic movie here?
It's hard for us to understand why Jesus chose to disappear from the disciples. Why didn't he stay longer with them?
In fact, in his very last appearance to the disciples, Jesus could see confusion written all over their faces. They were startled and frightened. Jesus came to bring a blessing of peace. He assured them that a ghost did not have a body and did not sit down to eat a meal with his friends. Jesus proved that he was truly alive; he was indeed the risen Christ promised long ago in the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets.
On one hand, Jesus shows himself as a human: alive and eating a piece of broiled fish. But on the other hand, he can now appear and disappear at will because he is not under the same physical constraints that once held him. He is now the risen and divine Christ.
So we come back to the question - Why didn't Jesus stay longer with the disciples? What key lessons can we learn from Jesus' disappearance?
In my reflection let me highlight three things. Jesus disappears to...
challenge us to complete our life's mission on earth.
reinforce the lesson that spiritual encounter is not an end by itself
call us to to live by faith and not by sight.
1. Jesus challenges us to complete our life's mission
Having completed his mission of suffering, dying and rising on the third day, Jesus is now ready to move on to his next mission: to enter his glory (24:26).
The Bible tells us that Jesus disappeared so that he can be ascended into heaven. We must not miss this important doctrine of Ascension emphasised in The Apostle's Creed.
In the Gospel, Luke locates the ascension on Easter day. In Acts he locates it forty days later. Both accounts are symbolic rather than literal. The gospel version suggests that resurrection already entails the glory of ascension to the right hand of God.
Just as Jesus completed his mission on earth, today all of us have one life to live. We are called to live it well. God has given each of us a unique life story and a life's mission. May we respond by completing the work God has called us to do.
Let us be reminded that while this world is not our home, we have a mission to fulfil while we are here. We need to catch the vision of heaven but true spirituality is always an earthy spirituality. To be grounded in God means that "the grass is not always greener somewhere else"; instead we are called to "bloom where God has planted us in".
And when we've completed God's mission, He will declare: "Mission accomplished, it's time to move on. Next destination, your eternal home!"
Lord, thank you that the psalmist reminds us with this assurance that our lives and times are in God's hands (see Ps.31:15). We pray for your grace and joy to be with us as we finish the mission you call us to do in this season of our lives in the family, city and country you plant us in at present. And one day we desire to hear you say, "Well done, good and faithful servant!" Amen.
2. Jesus reminds us that spiritual encounter is not an end by itself
Some time in the late 1970s or very early 80s, I found myself in the foothills of Cameron Highlands, in Camp Cameron, among volunteers serving in the Youth For Christ (YFC) ministry.
That mountain-top memory - and spiritual turning point - is etched in my heart till this day.
There we were mingling in a rustic, colonial-style bungalow surrounded by lush greenery, flowers and mountain view. The air was crisp and cool but the camp atmosphere was warmed by the fellowship and the excitement of learning from the Word of God. Jim Wilson, a veteran YFC International grassroots leader, was our camp speaker.
In a message, Jim spoke on the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. He highlighted the boy who made himself available by offering whatever little resource he had - the five loaves of bread and two fish to Jesus. It was a simple message. But God's Word came alive to me as I sat in front of the speaker and listened intently. To use the phrase from Emmaus account - my heart was burning within me as he opened the Scriptures to us.
I experienced a spiritual encounter in Camp Cameron: I was ready to offer myself to serve God. My five loaves of bread and two fish were not my money or my skills but my available heart lit by the flame of God for the work of his mission.
Despite the four thrilling days, we knew that the "mountain-top" experiences would not last forever. We are not meant to remain on the mountain; we are called to go down to serve where we are, and wherever "the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few" (Matthew 9:37).
At Emmaus, the risen Christ who walked with them...disappeared. And then he left them. So the disciples discovered that the spiritual encounters they experienced were not an end by itself. In fact, all encounters with the risen Lord have to come to an end. This is necessary. The end of a spiritual encounter actually ensures that the ending will lead to something new and permanent: that the disciples will go and tell the good news of God's work in their lives.
The Bible has many examples that illustrate this truth. At the end of the gospel of John, we read that Jesus appeared to Mary outside the tomb (John 20 :10-18). Here was Mary weeping when suddenly the Lord himself showed up. What an amazing spiritual - and physical - encounter! But this was not an end by itself. Jesus told Mary not to hold on or to cling on to him. In a way, maybe Jesus was saying: 'Mary, your goal is not to just to hang on to my feet but for you to use your feet to go and tell the good news to the apostles.' By teaching Mary to let go, he turned her into an apostle for the apostles.
Lord, help us to realise that whatever may be our "mountain-top" experiences or spiritual encounters, these things are not an end to itself. Instead, what should be ongoing and permanent is our Christ-centred living in the context of our daily and ordinary life. Grant us your grace to serve our family and to reach out to the needy and distressed in our community, as well as be your good witnesses in our work places. Amen.
3. Jesus calls us to live by faith and not by sight
Jesus disappeared. The disciples could not see him. Why does this matter?
An important reflection here is that we are called to live by faith and not by sight. We need faith at the point of conversion and salvation; it is by grace we have been saved, through faith (Ephesians 2:8,9). But we also need to live by faith, more and more, everyday. The writers of Hebrews tells us, " By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going" (Hebrews 11:8).
Faith is not easy to live out in hard times :
Consider a mother crying out, "How long, more, Lord?" as she cares for her child whose life is wrecked by schizophrenia.
Consider the plight of ageing parents as they wonder how their child - with special needs - will live one day when they are not around
Consider the troubles of the sole breadwinner of a family when he sees his EPF savings dwindle long before he retires at 60.
Consider an urban B40 family (defined as having a monthly household income of RM4000 or below) who has now slipped into the hardcore poor category (RM2,125 or below) during the pandemic.
Today we do not need to "walk on the water" literally to experience the challenges of living by faith. For many, daily life can feel like drowning.
In such difficult times, we need to faith to draw strength from God's community and be encouraged by what James says in the Bible about life's trials: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1:2-4).
Let us pray:
Lord, you disappeared from us, and we could not see you. That really stretches our faith! May your grace be with us so that we may live a life of faith to glorify you even in tough times. We pray that your words will give us courage: "Because you have seen me, you have believed, blessed are those who have not seen me and yet have believed" (John 20:29). Amen.